If you know me, you might know that two of my biggest musical theatre crushes are Samantha Barks (best known for playing Eponine in the Les Mis movie) and Phillipa Soo (who you might recognize from an obscure musical that did poorly and disappeared into oblivion called Hamilton). Sam Barks created the role at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015, and Pippa Soo took over in LA in 2016 and brought the show to Broadway in 2017. Basically, I’ve had reasons to be watching the trajectory of this musical since its first production. I never did get to see it as it closed soon after it opened after receiving no Tony nominations, but from what I’ve seen it looks visually stunning. So I was excited when the album was released to experience this show.
In case you don’t know, Amélie: A New Musical is based on a 2001 French film called Amélie about an eccentric young woman who takes it on herself to do anonymous good deeds. People have been telling me to watch it for years, and the creation of this musical was the final push for me to see it.
It’s an amazing film, you guys. Like it’s on my short list of my favourite movies ever now. It’s so quaint and colourful and basically everything I like about movies.
But back to the musical and its soundtrack. As much as I loved hearing Pippa record new material, much of the music is somewhat forgettable and underwhelming. There are a couple of standouts: notably “Times Are Hard For Dreamers,” which has been the go-to song for this show. It does a great job of showing Amélie’s endless optimism and her unique view of the world. Some other favourites are Adam Chandler-Berat’s two main songs, “When the Booth Goes Bright” and “Thin Air.” You may know him as Henry from Next to Normal, a role he excelled in. His characterization of Nino in Amélie is super similar to that of Henry. He plays the sensitive, somewhat awkward love interest very well, it seems.
Translating a film like Amélie for the stage must have been a huge undertaking, as it’s such a recognizable film in terms of writing and aesthetics. It’s a story that was made for FILM. Something that dissolved in the creation of the musical was the use of a single narrative voice, which to me is emblematic of the movie. Instead, they turned the ensemble into a collective narrator, all helping to tell Amélie’s story. I had mixed feelings about this at first, but now I think it’s a very interesting and well-executed way to conserve the narration. Amélie becomes the heroine of her own life, which makes the simple story about simple people seem larger than life.
Humour is also a huge part of the show, which isn’t something we’ve really seen Pippa do yet, but she excels at it. She presents her character so playfully, which shows us a side of her that is very new to me. But underneath that humour lies the fear of being alone that is at the core of the show.
Musically, the piece isn’t mind-blowing, but it is playful enough to reflect the eccentricity of the original film, and both Pippa Soo and Adam Chandler-Berat are absolutely brilliant. It’s a good listen if you’re a fan of the movie, or have a huge crush on Pippa, or like bouncy pop scores with lots of ensemble work.
I remember one Christmas a few years ago when I specifically asked for a Google Play gift certificate in order to buy and listen to the Off-Broadway cast recording of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Since then, I’ve been hooked on this show and others like it (meaning: weird musicals that probably shouldn’t work as musicals but still do). This is one of the reasons I fell in love with Phillipa Soo and how I was introduced to composer David Malloy. So of course, when this show transferred to Broadway, I knew I had to see it.
When I review cast albums, I like going in blind, as that’s the way that the majority of people in the world will experience Broadway shows if they don’t have a considerable amount of money or live in New York. I was lucky enough to have seen this show (from a balcony seat, no less!), so my judgement is a little skewed, as this production is EXPLOSIVE. But it’s fairly easy for me to separate the incredible visuals from the music, as I originally experienced the show aurally through the Off-Broadway soundtrack.
When I listened to this soundtrack, I was mostly looking for differences between the Off-Broadway production and the Broadway one. And that’s because: the Off-Broadway album is fantastic. I never formally reviewed it, but it is mind-blowing. If you don’t know anything about Great Comet, the show is an electropop opera. YEAH. Basically it’s a work of genius.
So I was really interested in finding differences between the two albums, which doesn’t make this the most accessible review ever, as it kind of assumes you have already listened to the Off-Broadway soundtrack. Which you should.
The major difference between these two productions is the size of the cast. This is a HUGE cast. And you can hear the difference in size when listening to the two albums. The Broadway recording is so rich in terms of sound, and overall it sounds so much fuller. It makes the experience even more invigorating. It sweeps you up and doesn’t slow down until the last few scenes, which end the show so delicately.
Much of the original show was left intact other than a few lyric changes. The most disappointing change for me was in the song “The Private and Intimate Life of the House.” (Brace yourself for some extensive analysis, feel free to skip this part if you aren’t a giant nerd.)
For context, this song is sung by Princess Mary, a very plain and religious young woman, and her abusive father. There’s a repeated verse in this song that was drastically changed from one production to the next, both melodically and lyrically. Melodically, it lost a lot of its power, as the sailing high notes were brought down and became more subdued. In terms of lyrics, this is how the original song goes:
Time is moving It’s now or never I’ve abandoned the hope of getting married
And this is the new verse in the Broadway production:
And time moves on And my fate slips past And nothing ever happens to me
Later on in the song the lyrics change again:
And time moves on And my fate slips past Is this all I’ll ever make of my life? Will I never be happy? Will I never be anyone’s wife?
This fear of never getting married appears in both versions, but as it is repeated several times in the original, it becomes emphasized in the Off-Broadway version. One could argue that Mary is shown as more independent in the newer version, as she is less concerned about becoming a wife than she seems to be in the original.
But here’s the thing: the original is more true to the reality of her time and situation. She’s this very plain, shy girl who won’t have many suitors, meaning she’ll be less likely to marry (and marry someone she loves), which is the only way for her (a woman in early 19th century Russia) to advance in life and society. In other words, it makes sense for her to be worried out of her mind about not getting married. And besides the social aspect of it, on a more personal level, Mary is an extremely lonely character. She is left isolated because of her father, and she craves intimacy and friendship, which is another reason for wanting to be married, as it would whisk her away from the abusive household.
TL;DR: The Off-Broadway version of the song is truer to Mary as a character, although I see the reasoning behind the new lyrics, which try to make her seem more independent.
Finally, the biggest change in the show: the addition of the song “Dust and Ashes.” I see the logic behind the placement of this song. They brought in Josh Groban, a Big Star, into the role of Pierre, pretty much guaranteeing him a shot at a Tony nomination. The only problem? The Big Star didn’t have a Big Showstopping Song. Enter: “Dust and Ashes,” the angstiest song in the show, a chance for Pierre to have his big musical monologue.
Being the nerd I am, I have read War and Peace (which Great Comet is based on, if you didn’t know). And Pierre is a hugely psychological character. Throughout the entire novel, there is constantly so much stuff going through his head. And we don’t see a whole lot of that in the Off-Broadway production. The song “Pierre” does a pretty good job of introducing him, but it’s really cool to get to see deeper into his psychology. My issue? “Dust and Ashes” doesn’t really do that. It tries. It tries so hard. But in the end the song uses a fairly weak extended metaphor (i.e. sleep) to explain that the reason why Pierre feels so numb is because he lacks love in his life.
I hate being a purist, but that’s really not the way I interpret Pierre. I’m treading into super subjective territory here, and most of my opinions about this song are a matter of interpretation, so I don’t expect people to agree with me. But the biggest internal battle Pierre experiences in War and Peace is about whether to succumb to earthly desires and pleasures (basically, partying your life away), or to try to make a difference in the world, to do good.
And this makes for fantastic emotional turmoil, which “Dust and Ashes” totally could have been about. As it is now, it’s an extended angsty ballad that can’t decide which direction to move in musically (a full choir? a single piano and voice? a full orchestra? let’s just do it ALL). So besides my issues with the distorted themes presented in the song, I also don’t find it that well-constructed in terms of music and lyrics.
So this is a HUGE post but I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since it dropped May 19th. If you’ve read this far, you rock. If you skipped most of this post, I understand. To sum up and (add on): the new album sounds explosively rich and richly explosive, Denee Benton (Natasha) is a goddess (and so is Pippa Soo), Groban is now a Broadway Star, I’m not a giant fan of the new song “Dust and Ashes,” and I’m a huge nerd and snob and like comparing musical adaptations to the original source material. Basically, I have way too many opinions on everything.
But you should listen to Great Comet, either the Off-Broadway or Broadway version, but preferably both. Nerd on my lovelies.
This post contains spoilers for Groundhog Day, both the musical and the film.
Anyone who is a Matilda The Musical fan has probably been watching Tim Minchin (comedian and composer) very closely in the past few years to see what his next project would be. When I heard that he was adapting the film Groundhog Day for the stage, I was perplexed at first (as I tend to be with most movie adaptations), but as I listened to the cast recording , I realized that this story perfectly reflects Minchin’s musical style: comedic, but with an underlying sense of darkness.
For those of you who don’t know the story, Groundhog Day tells the story of Phil Connors, a bitter reporter who travels to small town Punxsutawnee, PA for the Groundhog Day celebrations and for an unexplained reason is forced to relive the same day over and over again. This is the movie that began the familiar trope of the repeating day, which tvtropes.org calls the “‘Groundhog Day’ Loop.” This kind of plot happens a lot in episodic TV shows (think the “International Dateline” episode of Disney Channel’s The Suite Life On Deck).
So clearly, repetition is a huge theme in this story–which, in terms of music, can either fail if overdone or succeed if explored in an interesting way. Repetition is an important and often necessary tool in music, but it’s so easy to take it a step too far. This is what I was looking out for during my first listen of the cast album, and I think Minchin did a great job of handling the repetitive aspect of the score. Andy Karl’s performance as Phil also contributed to the sense of movement the score brings despite the backdrop of a single day. You can hear the evolution of his character in his voice, from the bitterness to the despair to the hope for a happy ending.
In terms of songs, the obvious hit is the (I’m assuming) 11 o’clock number of “If I Had My Time Again,” which contradicts the usual claim that “if I could do it again, I would do it the same.” It’s a rock ballad led by Rita (Phil’s love interest) in which she and the townspeople reflect on their regrets in life and what they would change if they could. The song “Stuck,” in which Phil is seen by a procession of unhelpful health “professionals”, is a reflection of Minchin’s satirical voice, specifically when he talks about pseudoscience (see: Tim Minchin’s Storm: The Animated Movie).
My least favourite moment of the score is the Act 1 finale, titled “One Day.” Though Minchin attempts to use his witty voice to show the complexities and contradictions of female desire (as Rita sees it), it deteriorates into a hackneyed 6/4 ballad about how she fears no man may fulfill all her expectations (spoiler: Phil can). She says: “One day, some day/my prince will come/but it doesn’t seem likely,” all of which we as musical theatre enthusiasts have heard a multitude of times before. We don’t need another female character who claims she’s done with men only to fall in love at the end.
Despite the insipid love story subplot, the album is pretty solid, and you get a good idea of Tim Minchin’s sense of humour and jazzy sound. Since I haven’t seen the show, it’s difficult for me to evaluate the plot and its adaptation from the movie, but I like most of the changes that were made, and it also seems to create more of an arc for Phil’s character than it did in the movie, where his change of heart feels a bit contrived. All in all, it’s a good listen, and I recommend it for people who are fans of the movie or of Minchin’s other work.
It’s really, really difficult to get excited about new Broadway shows when you don’t live in New York City and don’t have the resources to visit. What is available to you are the reviews, the official show clips, the behind-the-scenes videos; the show is just out of reach, but it isn’t until the cast album comes out that you get that first taste of the show for yourself.
There aren’t many reviews of cast albums online, but for people like us, the cast album is all we have. And sometimes, a good or bad review is what will convince us to buy the album at all. That’s where I come in.
I was lucky enough to catch the new musical Fun Home, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (yes, of the Bechdel Test), at the Circle in the Square Theatre last April on Broadway.
If you’re interested in the show, you’ve probably already read the rave reviews by every single critic with decent hearing. This is not one of those reviews. I’ll be reviewing exclusively the cast album as an experience in itself.
The Fun Home Original Cast Album is one of my favourite musical theatre albums of all time, thanks to its quick-witted storytelling and, of course, Jeanine Tesori’s emotional score.
Fun Home is one of those albums that you cry through. The recording contains every song from the Off-Broadway show, meaning it has a song that’s missing from its Broadway production, “Al For Short”, and doesn’t contain the currently performed “Pony Girl” and “Party Dress”. Still, the album beautifully captures the youthful spirit of the show, with Tesori’s soaring melodies and Lisa Kron’s extremely clever lyrics.
An interesting element of the album is the bits of dialogue between songs, making it even easier for the far-away listener to follow the story arc – considering the story is told unchronologically. A personal favourite of mine is “Thanks for the care package…”, a conversation between protagonist Alison and love interest Joan about Alison’s discovery of her sexual orientation. A hilarious, awkward, and very real-sounding dialogue that makes me grin when I listen to it.
My absolute favourite song on this album is “Changing my Major”, a love song Alison sings to a sleeping Joan after they sleep together for the first time. The actor who plays Medium Alison, Alexandra Socha, delivers a beautifully awkward performance. She is hesitant, she stumbles over her words, and yet every note and lyric is crystal clear. So many emotions in one song. It’s a thrill to listen to.
A close second is “Welcome to our House on Maple Avenue”, a song that introduces the audience to Alison’s family. It’s an upbeat, fast-paced song that captures a restlessness, the anxiety and tension running through the family as they clean their impressive house. It also introduces us to the setting, to the majestic, historic house they call home. The orchestrations of this song send shivers down my spine.
I adore every song on this album, so although I won’t go through them all, I’ll mention that the opening and closing numbers are gorgeously structured. They bring the story full circle, tying every single loose end. I have tears in my eyes when I get to the end of the CD, thinking of the delicate balance of this and of every family.
Fun Home is one of my favourite musicals ever, so it makes sense that I’d love the cast recording just as much. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in an unconventional Broadway score, with classical, folk, and pop influences. There’s really something for everyone in this magnificent score. It captures the changing face of modern Broadway.